David Douglas (KQED Perspective aired November 2004)
By Michael Ellis

In California we have the Douglas iris, the Douglas-fir and the Douglas squirrel. There are also many plants whose species name is douglasii. So who was this person all these things are named for? David Douglas was a Scottish botanist who collected mostly plants and some animals in the New World. His first visit to North America was in 1823 to the Hudson and the Mohawk River Valleys collecting new varieties of apples and plums for the Royal Horticultural Society.

They were impressed with him and the following year he was sent to the Columbia River. It was here he first collected the Oregon Pine, which we would later know as the Douglas-fir. He tried to befriend the local Indians everywhere he went. The rest of the white people were trapping beavers, looking for gold but Douglas was living off the land, rarely had a tent and was shooting pine cones down out of the trees and pressing plants. The Indians tended to leave this crazy fellow alone most of the time. He covered over 6000 miles in this rugged region, became the first European to climb the Rocky Mountains and collected over 200 species of plants. Upon his return to England he was celebrated and made a fellow of the Geological and Zoological Societies of London. But Douglas was anxious to return to his work and sailed back to West coast in 1829.

This time he spent 18 months collecting many plants in California including the coast redwood. Many of his seeds were germinated in the Glasgow Botanical gardens. The tallest tree in the British Isles right now is a Douglas-fir at 212′. He was planning on traveling north to Alaska but instead had to travel to the Sandwich Islands, that is Hawaii. It was here he met his death in a very ironic way. This man who had faced all sorts of dangers accidentally fell into a large hole in the ground that was dug by the locals to capture wild bullocks. Douglas was stomped and gored to death. This was the first victim of a pit bull along the West Coast. OK, bad joke but that is how this well known intrepid traveler came to an end; he was only 34 years old.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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August 6, 2009